Malaysia has two large Andaman islands on its west coast, both with amazing pantai (beaches) and many good places to stay. Penang is perhaps a more cultural hotpot, whereas Langkawi markets itself as more of an adventurous destination, but which of these islands is more suitable for the budget-conscious backpacker?
The first island I visited was Penang. I didn’t get to visit Langkawi until 2 years after Penang. For backpackers like me, Penang has it all: good weather, cheap food, interesting local culture, and an established backpacking community. Langkawi, at least to me, seemed more like a luxury destination with many family resorts on the beach, and much less of a local culture in which to integrate. I think these are the reasons why I chose to visit Penang first and leave Langkawi until later.
One of the major reasons for visiting Penang is the food culture! Everywhere you look there are hawkers and pasar malams serving up great food, including laksa, which is a speciality of the region, and street snacks such as apam balik and chee cheong fun, which is a Chinese-influenced snack. This Chinese influence looms large in Penang, as there is a significant population in the city who are ethnic Chinese. In contrast, Langkawi seems to be home to more traditional Malay citizens. Another cheap and easy thing to get your teeth into in Penang actually has nothing to do with food – it’s the street art! Many parts of Malaysia are famous for their street art (including Melaka), but nowhere more so than Penang. As I walk around the city in search of food and tourist attractions, it is always a pleasure to check out some of this street art.
Beaches are of course another reason why backpackers will visit a destination, as the chance to soak up the sun and enjoy the waves is too good to turn down! Both Penang and Langkawi have great beaches, but I always find that Langkawi is the king when it comes to beaches in Malaysia. The pure white sands here are a match for most beaches in Southern Thailand. However, when it comes to great beaches, you can bet your life that there will be luxury hotel resorts nearby, and this is something that Langkawi is known for – its expensive cost of living, which often prices out backpackers. Yet budget accommodation can still be found on the island of Langkawi (albeit not quite as cheap as in Penang) so the tourist attractions, such as the Sky Bridge and Cable Car, can be ticked off your bucket list with ease!